Friday, December 30, 2005

A year-end wrap and look ahead

I’m in Stockholm over New Year’s and have just a dial-up connection, so I’m writing this offline and hope I can manage to post it.
The year’s major events, to my mind, have been the arrival of Bite to spur competition in the mobile market as well as the emergence of Triatel as a viable alternative offering “telecoms in a box” and the first real 3G services in Latvia.
A couple of non-events: the government has not made up its mind whether to sell Lattelekom to its half-mother, TeliaSonera. At year end, it still looked ready to offer the fixed line operator, alone, to ABTS (anyone but TeliaSonera).
At Lattelekom, the non-event of the year has been IPTV, which we will see before Easter, but which has been promised us since last summer (when it was supposed to be launched in the fall). All one can say is SISFU (something is seriously fucked up), and perhaps I will find out when back in Latvia next week.
The pseudo-event of the year was IZZI saying that it was launching IPTV that looked exactly like its digital cable TV offering. It turns out that you can get IZZI digital over the internet if you a) have a 5 Mbps connection and b) rent or buy their decoder.
Since it doesn’t look like HomeDSL is going to jump to 5 Mbps before the end of 2006, why not just get their digital cable, which is reasonably priced and packaged, and why make a balagāns (a cheapo show) of pretending to have IPTV?
To be fair, this is a product one can offer for resale by other ISPs. We will see if that flies.
On December 1, number portability was introduced, but there was no stampede to switch. Bite had more than 50 000 users by year end, and perhaps just over 500 were switchers.
On the fixed side, a War of the Gagoons (Gāganu karš, colorful Latvian expression for much ado about nothing much) erupted between Baltkom and Lattelekom over number portability charges.
My analysis: yes, Lattelekom is probably overdoing it with their starting offer fees (they finally caved in to sharply lower interconnect fees ordered by the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission in 2004, it was not the end of the world); no, there will not be a stampede of thousands to Baltkom, rather, many hundreds who want their digital triple play – internet, TV and voice.
Fixed line is not where the action is. For international calls, you can get everything from Skype (free), Skype Out (cheap), various cheapo internet phone services and cards, and some pretty good tariffs from the bigger companies, including Lattelekom, if you pick the right tariff plan.

Looking to 2006

I predict:
Lattelekom will finally launch IPTV before Easter. Most people will shrug and say: „interesting“. If I were writing this in the evening on my HomeDSL line, maybe I could open a window and watch Panorama while typing (by year end 2006, maybe even watch BBC World).
Bite will get over 100 000 users, maybe more, by the end of Q2 2006.
Bite may launch flat fee business services by end Q2.

With a parliamentary general election in 2006, it is unlikely that the issue of privatizing Lattelekom and Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT) will be settled. Maybe in 2007. Trust any Latvian government to a) procrastinate (drag its feet) and b) probably fuck it up, selling Lattelekom at a firesale to TDC, Telefonica or Telenor (these are near-hallucinatory guesses). TeliaSonera will get all of LMT before Kenneth Karlberg retires, in any case. Kenneth is a man in his prime ☺.

Someone will launch WiMax by the summer, at least in Riga.
Triatel will get several thousand small business/upscale household customers in the Riga suburbs and in some country towns. It will have to look seriously at 3G services (content, a portal, etc.) in addition to actually having the network running.

We will have another internet speed race during the year. 1 Mbps will be the standard home connection by year-end. In Riga, there will be premium home services that offer 8 Mbps, perhaps even 24 Mbps (as in Sweden).

The first cdma450/GSM hybrid phones may appear, an opportunity for Triatel, and a challenge/opportunity for the GSM operators. The first mid-priced GSM/WiFi handsets will also appear, challenging the GSM operators to offer some kind of home cell discount. After all, from my apartment, I can Skype the world through my home WiFi from a hybrid phone. There are also hundreds of public and private hotspots in downtown Riga, so GSM operators will have a problem.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Happy holidays to all!

Well, this is just to wish a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah (perhaps past already, despite going to my American high school with many Jews, I hereby flunk Basic Jewish Facts for the Goy 101 :( ), joyous Kwanzaa, Priecīgus saulgriežus (the Latvian pagan solstice, also past) and whatever else may be being celebrated at this otherwise dark and dreary time of year, except in Australia (where this site gets hits from, too :) ).

Your faithful but seasonal holiday-challenged blogger,

Juris Kaža

Monday, December 19, 2005

Another cdma operator??

I was asked not to write about this, so I am not telling you that a company that was awarded 20 000 mobile numbers, and, hitherto, has offered only fixed-line services (as an alternative operator), is not saying whether it will launch a cdma service, using the the cdma 450 and 800 spectrum. This unnamed company (the name is in the Latvian Public Utility Regulation Commission's announcement on number resource allocations on Dec 16) is not saying that it is not doing a virtual operator deal with, say, the most obvious – Bite. Instead, it is not hinting that it may launch a service in direct competition with Triatel. The truth will be known in the second half of January, the company didn't say.

:) :) :)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Izzi or Izzn't it IPTV??

I missed the Izzi dog and pony show with IPTV, but looking at the PowerPoint they sent me, it looks like it is their digital cable TV (same package, same price). So what is the story – IPTV is what I get when subscribe to this on top of their cable internet ( 1Mps for LVL 19.95 is not so bad, but then, LVL 4.00 plus LVL 1.50 for each packet of several programs plus the decoder to purchase or rent and it gets pricey). Izzi digital cable TV comes without the cable internet, or rather, the cable comes without the internet, but the product is the same.
So I don't really get this? Or does getting it matter? We are in the age of one plug in the wall, many services, no need to know (other than curiousity, bad for cats) where they come from and how they come. Everything is a feature of an always on digital pipe. Call it what you want.
With pretty pictures of a set-top decoder box in the Izzi PPS, it doesn't look like something you will be able to watch on a PC (or Mac, in my case). The Lattelekom IPTV deal, which looks like it will appear in Q1 2006, will be available on PCs first (and may not fully work on Macs, my inside sources tell me). They will go for the set top box sometime in Q3 2006, assuming there are no delays or additional f**kups.
It remains to be seen whether Izzi gets an unbeatable first mover advantage. Will it cannibalize its digital cable with IPTV? Not if the eaten and the eater are the same thing, as they appear to be. What I think the Izzi digital cable offering has going for it is that it is focussed and gives defined packages of programs, with the basic one going for LVL 4.00 a month (cheaper than Baltcom). Baltcom's digital selection is around 100 channels, including lots of weirdo stuff, Korean satellite TV, etc. And how many German channels showing dubbed American films with black policemen shouting "Hände hoch motherfucker" can you stand? As far as the ethnic Russian target audience, when you are paying around LVL 11 a month for those 100 channels, everyone will be fighting babushka to watch Eurosport or MTV (which I think has a Russian channel) instead of nostalgic Soviet movies.
It's gonna be a weird year...

The Vlog is live

My second Vlog attempt in English has gone live on for those interested. I am not sure how you make a direct link. Google-owned Blogger certainly doesn't make it easy, probably not even possible. So do check it out, there isn't all that much stuff that searching under Latvia will get you on Google Video.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Re: The Vlog

It is taking Google Video all of a day to "verify" my submission. This is pretty amazing, considering the incredible, bizarre shit that you find on this site. All I have is a talking head, for f**k's sake! I wonder who let past (it was actually funny, I will admit) an episode of what could politely be called "ignition of intestinal gasses". There are clips where people blow up small dead reptiles (or whateverthef**k toads are) with firecrackers. I think they even blasted a dead rabbit. There are actual battle scenes from Iraq with people screaming obscenities, gunfire and explosions. There are amateur rock videos with someone else's music. They used to call that plagiarism. From Latvia, I have seen a weird clip about traffic safety from the 1930s and a fascinating "art of the banal" clip of riding a bus across the suspension bridge in Riga.
So what the f**k is taking Google so long?
Sorry, end of the day. one needs to rant.

IZZI beats Lattelekom on IPTV

Izzi, the company formerly known as TeliaMultiCom, has invited journalists to a demo of its IPTV service on December 15. I don't know if I will attend. Unfortunately, my late uncle's second wife, a retired lecturer in economics at the University of Latvia, died last week and her funeral will be held tommorrow afternoon. As the only representative of the family (my parents live in the US) in these parts, I will be paying my respects.
In any case, it will be interesting to test the Izzi service, assuming it can be accessed from Lattelekom's HomeDSL. It also remains to be seen how much of a first mover advantage Izzi will get from this, and how much it will cannibalize Izzi's digital cable TV service, which it is also launching.

Second video blog in English

Well, I just uploaded my second attempt at a video blog. It started as an attempt to do a one-way video chat with my oldest son in Umeå, Sweden, who has an identical computer to mine (an iMac G5) but no camera yet. So with the camera connected (and, yes, the fan hissing and all that shit in the background, plus it being nearly 2 am, the wee hour of the weird night) I did something. It is called Latvian Telecoms Vlog2 and you can find it at as soon as it is approved and put up. This is still an experiment. Someday, I will take the camera into the field, maybe interview someone, edit it, etc. etc.
Maybe something when I am in Sweden after Christmas?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Lattelekom slips back into retailing

Lattelekom opened the first of what will apparently be several Apollo «digital gadget and services» boutiques at a Riga shopping center. The idea is to sell desktop PCs, SOHO (small office, home office) equipment such as copiers, faxes, scanners and printers, wireline phone handsets, digital cameras and various things for the gadgeterati, as well as subscriptions to phone lines and DSL internet.

Where have we seen this before?
A year ago, Lattelekom' s then one and only subsidiary Sakaru Sistemas sold its 11 TeleParks retail shops to mobile phone dealer DT Mobile. DT Mobile owns the Dual and Trodeks chains of mobile phone shops, and it is converting the former TeleParks shops to Trodeks IT (or something like that).

What is missing here?
Well, whatever you may be able to buy at the Apollo store, it probably won't be a mobile phone and subscription (or prepaid). I may be wrong, I haven't been to the place, but there is only one dealer where you can get what small businesses really want, which is "telecoms in a box" and that is Triatel. It is, even with desktop phones, a totally wireless solution, so some business might be wary of that. But it does give a signal to Lattelekom (and Latvian Mobile Telephone) to get their act together.
Still, smart and logical as it may be, it isn't likely. My sources tell me that people at LMT are convinced that they and only they will be put up for full adoption by the half-mother, TeliaSonera, and that the half mother will orphan Lattelekom, to be sold on the cheap to whomever.
Back in Sweden, there are press stories that the half-mother has been consorting with Russia's Alfa Group, which has substantial telecoms interests and may be seeking to make peace and establish cooperation after participating in a perejoba (excuse my poor Russian, but the idea is along the lines of a f**king over) of TeliaSonera in its futile efforts to by all of Turkcell, a Turkish mobile operator.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Major failure of Lattelekom DSL network??

There seems to have been a major collapse of Lattelekom's DSL network the night from Thursday to Friday. I write via Bluetooth and my GPRS Nokia phone. The help line for DSL was overwhelmed, then had a recording saying in more polite terms that everything was clusterf**ked. It still has not been restored. A disaster. How big and long, we shall know tommorrow. Good to have a back-up via mobile. One more reason to get an EDGE phone.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

More pleas from the half-mother

Kenneth Karlberg, head honcho for Baltics, Denmark and Norway of TeliaSonera, told a press conference that it was now or never for selling the state participations in Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT) and Lattelekom. In case you are wondering, " never " is between six months and a year, when the Swedish telecoms group would like to finish some kind of deal with the Latvian government.
Karlberg and Erik Hallberg, an even bigger TeliaSonera honcho and member of Lattelekom's board (?) along with press flack (in a good sense) Kjell Lindström met with the troika appointed by the government to deal with the question of privatization of both partly state-owned Latvian operators. These were Minister of Economics Krisjanis Karins (sometimes referred to as "the widow's son), Minister of Transport Ainars Slesers and Minster of Finance Oskars Spurdzins.
Karlberg said the meeting had been "positive" and discussions would continue. There were no concrete results. He said he hoped the talks would be concluded in six months to a year with some kind of result.
The troika has been dealing with the question since last summer and had its mandate extended in the fall. According to my sources, one of the thornier issues is "legal matters that are not clear". What this seems to hint at is that the government is still sticking to the view that Lattelekom should be sold to anyone but TeliaSonera, therefore, a way of getting around TeliaSonera's right of first refusal has to be found.
However, reading between the lines of Karlberg's statement, it appears that the government may be open to arguments that, perhaps, selling Lattelekom as a stand-alone wireline operator may not be the smartest thing and that ownership of both fixed and mobile won't diminish competition in Latvia, but will increase it, as is the case, Karlberg said, in Lithuania and Estonia.
Another of my sources indicated that at the upper levels of LMT, there appears to be a belief that they will be the only maiden to marry the Swedish prince (women at a certain newspaper have made remarks that Karlberg is "quite handsome"). Hence LMT brushed off an offer to cooperate with a daughter of the sister they believe will be left behind. Of course, Juris Binde, the father of the proud "first bride" could be proven wrong.
Karlberg also spend considerable time describing the mating frenzy that has taken place in European telecoms (reminds me of the frog orgy near my summer house, everyone hopping on top of everyone else). TeliaSonera, he pointed out, has been mating with every available froggy in the Baltic pond and is now the number one bullfrog in most of the region's markets, and rich to boot. But where there are fat bullfrogs, there could be swooping Spanish storks or giant German turtles. We shall see.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Something afoot with TeliaSonera and the Latvian companies

TeliaSonera regional honcho Kenneth Karlberg has called a press conference for December 8 at 1430 regarding talks with the government commission discussing whether to privatize the government's remaining holdings in Latvian Mobile Telephone/LMT (28 % directly) and Lattelekom (51 %).
There may have been a breakthrough. The best scenario is that the government agrees in principle to sell both companies to TeliaSonera, which allows their integration and a single customer facing service platform ranging from fixed and mobile voice to sophisticated data services.
The worst case scenario is that Lattelekom gets renationalized in a swap of shares for LMT, the only prize that TeliaSonera wants almost at all cost. If there is no clear, fast exit scenario for the state from Lattelekom, look for the present management to probably leave. Lattelekom then, in the name of mechanical price competition, becomes a very cheap asset (fixed line being of limited, if not no future) for someone like Telefonica or TDC to snatch. They will then turn the company into a full spectrum service provider (TDC by linking Bite with Lattelekom).

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

No one wild in the streets for number porting

It appears that the Latvian public is not going wild in the streets for number portability. There has been little action on the mobile side, though I have not checked out Bite. However, I believe that had their first 1 000 signed up (getting a Nokia 6230i for LVL 1 in the bargain), there would have been an annoucement. It appears only a few hundred have taken the plunge for all forms of porting, mostly on the fixed line side. Baltkom says 400 people expressed an interest in switching and predicted some 2000 would do so by the end of the week. That sounds interesting, but it is a trivial percentage of 600 000 Lattelekom subscribers. For Baltkom, to be sure, it is a double digit rise as they don't have very many subscribers, around 10 000, perhaps (though not bad for an alternative operator). Baltkom and Latvenergo (if they are still eager to do telecoms) will probably gain more subscribers in the medium term by signing up people in the newly-built housing developments and offering them very fast internet, digital TV and telephony all in one. I tend to think that many of the Lattelekom refugees to Baltkom live in areas covered by Baltkom's fiber optic network and number portability removes the last barrier to getting Baltkom's reasonably attractive triple play packet.
The time is drawing near when Lattelekom will have to match the triple-play offered by other operators (a weird kind by Izzi), but that means getting its IPTV service launched. A dead Apollo TV link has, yet again, appeared on the website, but don't count on TV on your Apollo internet connection by Christmas. Q1 2006 is a safe bet.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Muted, but noticable interest for number porting

There was muted but noticable interest in Latvia for number portability, which became available December 1. Strangely, Bite Latvija, which expects to gain the most from the new service, was not quite ready to take porters – it was training its sales staff. However, the Bite boutique in Riga was crowded with people signing on as new customers. Some 1000 had called Bite's customer line about possibly porting. Starting December 5, the first 1 000 number porters will get a Nokia 6230i business class phone for LVL 1.
LMT also said it had around 1000 (more by day's end) inquiries about signing on as a new customer, but it was not clear how many involved porting older numbers. Tele2 also said there was considerable interest and is hold a press event on December 2 to announce preliminary results. Both operators said the increased customer activity reflected the impact of recent marketing efforts -- Tele2 and LMT's new tariff schemes and Tele2's 3G video telephony service.